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Valerie Matsuda had an emotional visit yesterday with husband, firefighter Brent Matsuda, at Queen's Medical Center. He was injured after falling down a lava tube last Wednesday.

Firefighter recovers
from wild ride

He is grateful to be alive after
falling down an old lava tube

By Genevieve A. Suzuki

Valerie Matsuda is used to the dangerous nature of her husband Brent's job as a Big Island search and rescue specialist.

The firefighter has been lowered into a ravine at Waipio Valley, scuba dived into the Boiling Pots section of Wailuku River State Park, and rescued families during flash floods.

But nothing prepared her for the call she received last Wednesday morning after her husband fell more than 100 feet into a lava tube off Captain's Trail in the Puna subdivision of Fern Forest while searching for three lost pig hunters.

"It was horrible," Valerie, 40, said. "I never worried about him until now.

"He even said he thought he was invincible," she said.

Brent Matsuda, 41, has been a search and rescue specialist for more than two of the eight years he has been with the Hawaii County Fire Department.

Matsuda, who was in fair condition yesterday at Queen's Medical Center, does not remember very much before or after his fall.

"My friend said one second I was there and then one second I was tumbling down," he said.

Matsuda fell through a fern into a hole that was about 5- to 8-feet wide, said Honolulu Fire Department Capt. Richard Soo. The lost hunters emerged uninjured from the forest later that day.

Matsuda has broken ribs and internal injuries, including a lacerated kidney and liver, said Darryl Oliveira, chief of the Hawaii County Fire Department.

Valerie said it could have been much worse. She said doctors from the orthopedic unit at Queen's told her how extraordinary it was for Matsuda to have survived the fall.

"I was just blessed," Matsuda said. "I was lucky to have escaped it like I did."

It took rescuers three hours to get Matsuda out of the tube because they had to lift him vertically rather than use the preferred horizontal method to better deal with possible back and neck injuries, Oliveira said.

Oliveira described Matsuda as a terrific, hardworking and physically fit person.

Valerie said her husband surfs, lifts weights and runs regularly.

"He's brave and he's strong and he's hardheaded," Valerie said. "Everything you need to survive."

When Matsuda fell, he was wearing a helmet and a backpack with rescue gear that included a cell phone, rope, a camera and sweaters, said Valerie. The helmet helped Matsuda escape serious head injuries, Soo said.

Matsuda is a little depressed with the two to four weeks he needs to rehabilitate, but on Monday morning he jokingly called his unit to say he was taking a sick day, Valerie said.

"I love my job," Matsuda said. "I wish I could get back. I know physically I've got to work my way back."

The Matsudas have been married for 10 years. Valerie's daughter Leilani, 16, is flying to Honolulu on Friday with their sons Blackie, 10, and Blue, 8.

"They're sad and they want to see him," Valerie said.

She said the firefighter community has been generous, giving the Matsudas food, clothes, money and cards. Soo is lending the family a car while they are on Oahu.

Matsuda was in and out of consciousness Wednesday and Thursday. When he woke in the hospital Friday, he said he thought of his family and of the camaraderie in the Hawaii County Fire Department. He said he was grateful to the firefighters who rescued him and to the Hawaii County and Honolulu fire departments for their support.

"A lot of the things (firefighters) do go relatively unnoticed," Matsuda said.

The Big Island fire department has 300 firefighters, according to Oliveira. "We're a real tight department," Oliveira said. "We're friends first, co-workers second.

"This was probably the worst-case scenario next to responding to a family member."

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